I’m a week late in logging the fact that I was also quoted in the Guardian last week, praising debating societies.
If a perception of this kind of competitive debating as old-fashioned and the preserve of public schools and university societies goes unchallenged, then we lose a great deal. Robert Sharpe [sic] of the worldwide writers’ association English PEN sees charges of elitism as a shame, because “the skills one learns through a good debate are crucial for modern life. Political events continue to remind us of the importance of persuasive arguments and good oratory that appeal not only to our rational side, but our emotional side too.” He also thinks the ability to see the other side is particularly important. “The essence of free speech is that we allow people with whom we disagree to speak. Wrongheaded views will be aired. But free speech means no one gets the last word. We can – and indeed, we should – use our own right to free speech to challenge expression we think is unpleasant or wrong. To do this we need to be equipped to argue in public. Debating competitions are a fantastic way to teach this important skill to young people.” Later this year, English PEN will join the Chamber Debate in the House of Lords, in which students from state schools across the country will discuss the issue of free speech.
I was never in a debating society at university but I have debated at both the Cambridge Union and the Oxford Union in my time.
Talking to Alex Clark for the article, I reminded myself that my blogging in this place is informed by similar principles. The writing I do here is not intended to preach to the converted, which is why there are many major news stories that I don’t react to on this site.
Rather, I try to present arguments that I think might persuade someone who doesn’t quite agree with me. My imaginary reader for this purpose is not a rigid ideologue, but rather someone who is as capable of persuading me that they are right, as I am of persuading them of the same.